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Way of the future? Students learn just as well online, Cornell study finds

John AndererApril 10, 2020
5-6 minutes

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us inside. Bustling offices and classrooms have become about as antiquated as fax machines and beepers in the blink of an eye. Remote-centric employment or learning approaches were considered fringe options just a month ago, but now these strategies are employers and educators’ only choice to keep things semi-on-track through this pandemic.

For all of the awfulness, this coronavirus has brought, perhaps the way it has forced everyone to embrace online learning and work may end up being beneficial. For instance, consider the latest findings out of Cornell University regarding online STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses. Researchers found that not only did students learn just as efficiently via online courses as physical classrooms but such classes are also much cheaper for universities to put together. At some point, lower costs for institutions should mean lower enrollment prices for students as well.

The study

Over 300 Russian students were tracked for this study. Even before the coronavirus appeared, many Russian universities had already embraced online courses due to a lack of traditional resources.

“Demand for higher education is surging in the digital economy we now live in, but the price of a college education has ballooned and we don’t have enough people to teach these courses, especially in more rural areas,” explains study co-author Rene Kizilcec, assistant professor of information science at Cornell University, in a press release. “This new study offers the best available evidence to judge whether online learning can address issues of cost and instructor shortages, showing that it can deliver the same learning outcomes that we’re used to, but at a much lower cost.”

It’s estimated that an online course costs a university 80% less per student than a traditional class. Even courses that are split 50% online and 50% in the classroom are still 20% cheaper to facilitate per student. These discoveries are especially relevant for STEM courses; these complex skills are in high demand from the workforce all over the world but universities are struggling to keep up with all the students interested in pursuing STEM degrees.

One of the biggest hurdles when it comes to producing more STEM courses at colleges is a lack of qualified professors. That’s why many countries (China, India, Russia) have created national online educational platforms. These portals allow top universities in these countries to create online STEM courses that other institutions can incorporate into their curriculum for a price.

“Online education platforms have a big potential to expand access to quality STEM education worldwide,” comments Igor Chirikov, the project’s principal investigator. “They could also strengthen the instructional resilience of colleges when in-person delivery is not an option, such as right now, when most universities are closed to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak.”

For this study, researchers gathered 325 students and randomly assigned them to one of three conditions for two of their courses during the 2017-2018 academic year: two completely online courses, two in-person classes, or two “blended” courses that combined online and in-person learning.

Across all three course conditions, the students’ final exam grades didn’t fluctuate all that much. In fact, students assigned to all online courses scored 7.2 percentage points higher than the other participants. However, online learning students were permitted a bit more leeway; these students were allowed to make three attempts on weekly assignments, a luxury not enjoyed by the others.

There was also some negative feedback on the online courses, though. Fully remote students said they were slightly less satisfied with their overall learning experience than the other two student groups.

“Satisfaction might be lower, but learning outcomes are the same,” Kizilcec adds. “This is a reminder that what students say about instruction quality in course evaluations at the end of the semester might not be so predictive of what students are actually learning.”

There’s a lot of chatter these days about how the world will look after COVID-19. While many are scared that things will never be the way they once were, that doesn’t necessarily have to be negative. A more prominent transition towards remote and online learning can benefit both universities and students.

“Licensing online courses offsets some of the costs of a typical four-year college education and can focus instructor attention on the courses that are more specialized,” Kizilcec concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in Science Advances.